Review: Hanks Sticks the Landing, But SULLY Fails to Soar
Oscar-winning director Clint Eastwood helms this big screen reenactment of the “Miracle on the Hudson", when US Airways flight 1549 made an emergency landing on New York’s Hudson River in January 2009. Tom Hanks plays Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who successfully brought the plane to rest, saving all 155 passengers and crew on board, only to subsequently face heavy scrutiny for his actions. Shot mostly with IMAX cameras, Eastwood ensures the sequences of the fateful flight capture the danger and tension of that day, but when on terra firma Sully has little stowed away.
It has always been the unspoken truth of air travel that nobody survives a water landing. We dutifully follow the safety demonstration, locate our lifejackets, learn how to tie them properly and understand that rafts will inflate automatically once the emergency doors are opened. What nobody utters out loud is that the aircraft will most likely shatter into a thousand pieces on impact, and everyone inside will die horribly long before we have the chance to use our whistles. Except, on 15 January 2009, it actually happened.
After successfully not killing everybody on board, Sullenberger was hailed as a hero in the media, a sentiment shared by everybody on board and the American public in general. But the National Transport Safety Board challenged the pilot's decision to ditch his aircraft following a bird strike, rather than head for one of the numerous airports that their simulators tell them were within easy reach. After 42 years in the air, Sully found his career in jeopardy because of 208 seconds of flight time.
And herein lies the biggest problem with Todd Komarnicki’s script, adapted from Sullenberger’s own book, Highest Duty. It is difficult to drag out three-and-a-half minutes of action to even a modest feature length, and at 96 minutes, Sully is thankfully modest. As a result, the film spends an inordinate amount of its running time documenting the decades of experience chalked up by its eponymous hero, as well as the emotional turmoil experienced by Sullenberger and First Officer Jeff Skiles during their NTSB hearings.
Like its protagonist, there is an understated, clinical efficiency to Sully that makes it an engaging, occasionally exhilarating watch, while never in any danger of breaking a sweat. Eastwood’s direction is proficient yet anonymous, too often falling back on the spectacular scenery or his ever-reliable leading man to keep the film aloft.
Hanks delivers a performance of seemingly effortless composure that feels honest and naturalistic without ever pandering. From beginning to end, Sully is determined to pass any praise onto his colleagues and the rescue teams, while taking full responsibility for his questionable actions. Likewise, Hanks always appears generous and gracious onscreen, and may well garner awards recognition for his efforts.
Unfortunately there is little opportunity for the rest of the cast to make much of an impression, despite the best efforts of Aaron Eckhart’s formidable facial hair. As First Officer Skiles, he provides welcome support and camaraderie for the increasingly strung out Sully, but is never asked about his own experiences of the incident. Likewise, Laura Linney, as Lorraine Sullenberger, is relegated to tearfully cradling her telephone as she ogles her television, powerless to do anything but will her husband home safely.
In a city still licking its wounds from the horrific events of 9/11, the image of another passenger aircraft descending towards Manhattan must have triggered abject terror in all concerned. Eastwood leans into this imagery just enough, without it becoming gratuitous, and structures the film smartly, so the truth of what occurred - both in the cockpit and out on the water - is teased out as the enquiries unfold. What Sully lacks, however, is any legitimate sense of doubt or ambiguity to leave its audience guessing as we await the NTSB ruling. Even in IMAX, it would seem, 208 seconds of drama simply isn't enough.